I started working at the age of ten; it wasn’t my idea. My mother offered me up to be the neighborhood babysitter like I was her indentured servant to be loaned out at will. No need to pay me she would tell them; my daughter wouldn’t think of taking your money. Giving freely of your time was a strict family code. When she was nine my mom was sent out to take care of local women right after they gave birth. She was expected to do the laundry, cook for the household, and take care of the baby while the mother recovered. That’s how it was in my Serbian family. Everyone worked hard from a young age, and when it came to neighbors, no money ever exchanged hands.
My first paying job was during the summer before my eighth grade. I was stoked; I would finally earn money for my very own. I had been hired by a local farmer to work in the packing sheds in his orchards, cutting peaches and apricots. I wasn’t sure what that entailed exactly, but as I was ridiculously responsible for my age—almost a miniature grownup—I felt I could handle anything. Ha.
I arrived at dawn on my first day of work and checked in with the foreman. I was keen to find out how much money I would make over the next couple of months. Contrary to my understanding, he explained that I wouldn’t actually be getting an hourly wage, that my pay would be based on output: for each tray of cut fruit I turned in they would pay me 25 cents. Hmm. . . How hard can this be? I looked around at my fellow laborers who, as it turned out, were also staring at me. I was the only white person in the field. The rest were Hispanic families—men, women, and children—clustered together in groups, all wearing broad-brimmed hats, and holding on to lunch pails and jugs of water. I shyly smiled and gave a nonchalant wave. They smiled back, looking bemused.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when we headed to the packing sheds. It was already starting to warm up. Hundreds of boxes of peaches were stacked under the metal roofs next to wooden trays and knives that were laid out on a long table that extended the length of the shed. I watched as the workers found a place in the assembly line. I tucked in alongside a family that graciously made room for me.
I couldn’t speak Spanish, but I gathered “Comenzar a trabajar!” meant “to begin” as everyone, children included, picked up their knives and commenced to cut fruit at a blinding speed. With one swipe they cut the peach expertly in half, and with their thumb or the edge of the knife they flicked out the pit and laid the two halves neatly on the tray, then reached for the next peach. This entire process took less than five seconds. Oh boy, I thought, as I picked up my knife and got started. It took four pathetic swipes to open up the peach, and another twenty seconds to gouge out the pit before finally laying the mangled peach on the tray. I felt rather pleased with myself and looked up to see how others were doing. The woman next to me had already filled up her first tray and was beginning on her next one. Her knife was a blur as it flew, methodically laying peach after peach down in perfect rows. She looked over at the one solitary peach sitting on my wooden tray and smiled. I sighed and picked up my next peach.
It was slow going. My peaches looked like survivors from a fiercely fought battle, ragged around the edges but still alive—barely. The foreman was a patient man and gave me pointers. My speed picked up, as did the appearance of the fruit. By now, it was about 120 degrees under that shed roof. Sweat was pouring off me. I felt delirious. I had cuts on my hands. My thumb looked like raw hamburger. My shoulders were hunched around my ears, and my neck felt like I had been viciously stabbed again and again. A young girl brought over a jug of water and offered it to me. She placed her small hands over mine, kindly showing me how to use the knife to properly remove the pit. She gave me an encouraging and sympathetic smile. I nodded my head and plugged on.
Eventually, my pace picked up, and my productivity increased, as did my wages. However, compared to the youngest child there, I still was filling one tray to their four. We moved on to apricots. By the end of the summer, I was a moderately seasoned worker. My wounds had healed and my fingers were covered with calluses. It took a long time before the fruit stains bleached out of my hands. My hard-earned money bought me new school clothes that September. However, it was years—literally years—before I could eat another peach or apricot.